The Perception of Lexical Similarities Between L2 English and L3 Swedish

University essay from Linköpings universitet/Institutionen för kultur och kommunikation

Abstract: The present study investigates lexical similarity perceptions by students of Swedish as a foreign language (L3) with a good yet non-native proficiency in English (L2). The general theoretical framework is provided by studies in transfer of learning and its specific instance, transfer in language acquisition. It is accepted as true that all previous linguistic knowledge is facilitative in developing proficiency in a new language. However, a frequently reported phenomenon is that students see similarities between two systems in a different way than linguists and theoreticians of education do. As a consequence, the full facilitative potential of transfer remains unused. The present research seeks to shed light on the similarity perceptions with the focus on the comprehension of a written text. In order to elucidate students’ views, a form involving similarity judgements and multiple choice questions for formally similar items has been designed, drawing on real language use as provided by corpora. 123 forms have been distributed in 6 groups of international students, 4 of them studying Swedish at Level I and 2 studying at Level II.  The test items in the form vary in the degree of formal, semantic and functional similarity from very close cognates, to similar words belonging to different word classes, to items exhibiting category membership and/or being in subordinate/superordinate relation to each other, to deceptive cognates. The author proposes expected similarity ratings and compares them to the results obtained. The objective measure of formal similarity is provided by a string matching algorithm, Levenshtein distance. The similarity judgements point at the fact that intermediate similarity values can be considered problematic. Similarity ratings between somewhat similar items are usually lower than could be expected. Besides, difference in grammatical meaning lowers similarity values significantly even if lexical meaning nearly coincides. Thus, the obtained results indicate that in order to utilize similarities to facilitate language learning, more attention should be paid to underlying similarities.

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